Despite a televised appearance of humility and sympathy, French President Emmanuel Macron seems to have failed to quell the mood of national anger over wide-ranging economic grievances.
The capital Paris and other major French cities are thus set to see the fifth consecutive weekend of protests – or “Act Five” as the demonstrators are saying.
Nearly 24 hours after Macron’s TV address, a gunman killed three people and injured dozens others in the eastern city of Strasbourg, prompting French authorities to declare a state of emergency. The heightened tensions across France with maximum security forces deployed come as protest marches are planned for this weekend against Macron’s government.
After weeks of maintaining his silence on growing civil discord, Macron finally addressed the nation in a 14-minute pre-recorded speech on Monday night. He sounded contrite and even humble, accepting that he had “offended” citizens with his aloof words and attitude.
The president also announced specific concessions: an increase in the minimum wage by €100 a month, the cancelling of taxes on low-income pensioners, and the exemption of overtime pay from taxation.
But the consensus expressed by protesters among the so-called Yellow Vest movement was one of contempt. They said Macron’s televised concessions were “crumbs” and “too little too late”. The upshot is that demonstrations will again be held in the French capital this weekend, as well as other major cities. The weekly gridlock is bringing the French economy to a crisis point.
The latest deadly shooting incident in Strasbourg on Tuesday night may throw the weekend protests into disarray from the subsequent security tensions and fear of further violence. A question many protesters are asking is: who gains from the timing of the Strasbourg killings?
What no doubt is further unnerving Macron’s government is that the public protests appear to be growing across social sectors. Public sector workers and students are planning to join in the cause. What is emerging is a generalized public revolt – reminiscent of the epic 1968 revolution which toppled the incumbent government of President Charles de Gaulle, at least temporarily.
The protests first broke in early November over the French government’s planned hikes in transport fuel taxes. French drivers, who have to carry high-visibility yellow vests in their vehicles as a legal safety measure, were the first to take to the streets. But what began as a specific fuel tax issue has expanded and tapped into a broad popular revolt against Macron’s neoliberal capitalist policies.
The trouble for Macron is that he just can’t help sounding elitist – and insincere. During his TV “mea culpa”, he may have offered concessions on wages and taxes, but the president spent a large part of his national address berating protesters for using violence. He said that while the public anger was “deep and in many ways legitimate” there was “no excuse for violence”. Well, the way many French citizens and other observers see it, it is the French state that is using excessive violence to repress the right to public protest.
Last weekend saw up to 90,000 French riot police and troops deployed across the country to contain demonstrations. Hundreds of protesters were arrested and put in custody “preemptively”. There were also scenes of gratuitous brutality by police when peaceful protesters were fired on with teargas and water cannons.
When Macron lectures “there is no excuse for violence” his words sound trite and hypocritical given the levels of uncalled-for violence that the French state has licensed itself to use.
Moreover, increasing numbers of French citizens consider economic policies that deprive workers and their families of decent livelihoods to be a form of state-imposed violence. Policy choices that force people into poverty and degradation are a system of violence.
In his TV mea-culpa-lecture, Macron defiantly said that he would not reinstate the tax on France’s very wealthy. His earlier decision to scrap that tax earned him the nickname of “president of the wealthy”. It was this pandering to the rich in combination with imposing fuel taxes hitting the majority of workers hardest that sparked the present revolt.
The proposed fuel levies – which Macron has since abandoned as a concession to the protesters – were rationalized as a necessity to raise fiscal funds to pay for “ecological changes” in French society. Macron has deftly presented himself internationally as a champion for combating climate change. Some political observers in the US on the so-called “liberal left” have welcomed Macron as a “counter-Trump” figure. He certainly talks with “eco-friendly” rhetoric, saying that he wants to “make the planet great again” (a dig at Trump), and that we need to take urgent action to avert climate change, because “there is no planet B”.
However, Macron’s apparent progressive ecological rhetoric belies a politician who is deeply conservative of the economic status quo. A status quo which has seen the impoverishment of more and more workers over decades while the very wealthy amass ever-more wealth. This is the social condition of all capitalist countries, not just France, but the French are doing something about it.
What Macron showed with his now-defunct fuel tax proposals was a patrician contempt for the majority of society. He intended to put the financial burden of ecological changes on the backs of ordinary workers, while at the same time giving the already wealthy a big fat windfall.
The former Rothschild’s investment banker is certainly no progressive – in spite of his pretentious rhetoric. If he really wanted to “make the planet great again” then Macron should be taxing the wealthy and corporations, not poor workers who have to drive hundreds of kilometers every day because they can’t afford to buy or rent houses in city areas. If Macron really did have progressive ideas, then his government could fund all workers to work a four-day week, on full pay, so that one day of non-commuting would save pollution.
There are countless progressive policies that could be innovated that would improve the lives of ordinary people while also moving society towards more ecologically sustainable existence. Macron is a plutocrat who wants to shaft ordinary people even more for the benefit of his rich-class cronies – all under the guise of “eco-friendliness”.
French protesters are right to see through Macron’s televisual “crumbs” of compensation. The injustice, dehumanization and criminal militarism of capitalism has gone too far to be mitigated by a minimum wage increase or some other sticking-plaster measure.
That’s why the French capital and other cities are set for even more upheaval in the weeks ahead. Significantly, too, the public in other European countries are being inspired by the French to likewise get out on the streets to demand their natural justice.
Ominously, Macron’s apparently soothing words were laced with dark threats of more state violence if protesters do not accept his “offers”. At one point in his TV address, the president, who recently praised the disgraced Vichy leader and Nazi collaborator Philippe Pétain, said of the protests: “When violence is unleashed, freedom ends.”
The deadly shooting in Strasbourg on Tuesday night, 24 hours after Macron’s speech, has raised suspicions of a deliberate provocation being staged by French security services in order to militarize society generally and impede planned protests in the capital this weekend. The gunman was reportedly known to French authorities as a national security risk. His home in Strasbourg was raided hours before his alleged gun attack, but the suspect evaded capture. Following the shooting in which three people were killed France has increased its national emergency alert to its highest level which means authorities can deploy more troops on streets, declare lockdowns in urban areas and arrest people without warrant.